Marriage and the social connections it brings may be more valuable than education

The American dream is on the decline.

The gap between the rich and the poor has been widening in the United States for years, studies show — and education is not a great equalizer, a new report distributed Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research found.

The American dream — the idea that anybody can be more successful than the generation before them with enough hard work — is more attainable in countries like Canada or Denmark than in the country where the term was coined. Institutional racism and poor schooling are often cited by sociologists as potential reasons for differences in economic status, but a new study conducted by the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California found the factors are more complex.

The report found little evidence that schooling drives economic and social mobility between generations. Instead it found relationships have a bigger hand in whether a low-income child eventually climbs to a higher socio-economic class: Two-fifths of the change in income across generations can be attributed to marriage and the networks it allows people to access.

“This points to job networks and the structure of local labor and marriage markets, rather than the education system, as likely factors influencing inter-generational economic mobility,” the study said.

Marriage rates are more closely linked to socioeconomic status than ever before, a 2017 study from nonprofit think-tank the Pew Research Center found in 2017. People with less education are less likely to get married, it showed. For adults ages 25 and older, 65% with a four-year college degree were married in 2015 compared to 55% with some college education and 50% of those with no education beyond high school. Twenty-five years ago, marriage rates were at 60% across all of these demographics.

This comes as even public colleges become too expensive for many students to afford. They are increasingly relying more on tuition than state funding to operate, a 2018 study from left-leaning think tank Demos found. Today, students in 38 states would need to work more than 20 hours a week to be able to graduate from a four-year college debt-free.

Still, college is important for obtaining a higher-earning career. In fact, college graduates earn more than $1 million more than high school graduates over the course of their lifetimes. Not all college majors are created equal, though: The highest earning college majors, like those in science and math fields, earn $3.4 million more than the lowest paying majors like humanities and liberal arts over a lifetime.

These shifts come as income inequality in the U.S. has been on the rise. Less than half of Americans now say they are part of the middle class. and the U.S. now has the largest percentage of those who are considered low-income (26%) compared to 11 European countries, a 2017 report from market research group Mintel found.

“Americans want access to opportunities that improve the overall quality of their lives,” the Mintel study said. “This attitude might be related to income inequality, with people of average income levels feeling relatively unsatisfied with what they have compared to the top 1%.”

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